The Psychoaesthetic Line

This week in IJ we read more about Canada, vomiting, and some added gross-out hygiene ads. All the things I love.

My first read’s standout passage, in terms of pure hilarity and awe at Jest’s ability to word, was the NoCoat Inc. lingua-scraper advertisement description on 413-414, which “clearly crossed some kind of psychoaesthetic line.” I like this passage so much that when I gave a presentation a couple years back in a U.S. Fiction class on Infinite Jest and its relation to the novel Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem, this is the passage I read aloud, to give my audience a sense of Wallace’s prose and sense of humor. (I then wrote a paper on this relationship between CC and IJ and presented it at last year’s Wallace conference at ISU).

The NoCoat spot’s chilling emotional force could be located in the exaggerated hideousness of the near-geologic layer of gray-white material coating the tongue of the otherwise handsome pedestrian who accepts a gorgeous meter maid’s coquettish invitation to have a bit of a lick of the ice cream cone she’s just bought from an avuncular sidewalk vendor.   

I just try and imagine sitting on my couch, seeing this ad come on during some kind of ATP Grand Slam event I’m watching in the late AM of a summer day, coffee in hand, still waking up. This ad amongst Pinty’s, Trivago, and Tennis Canada initiative spots that recur at every single commercial break, without fail, composing a kind of Sisyphean exercise in patience with their mundane repetition.

The lingering close-up on an extended tongue that must be seen to be believed, coat-wise. The slow-motion full-frontal shot of the maid’s face going slack with disgust as she recoils, the returned cone falling unfelt from her repulsion-paralyzed fingers. The nightmarish slo-mo with which the mortified pedestrian reels away into street-traffic with his whole arm over his mouth, the avuncular vendor’s kindly face now hateful and writing as he hurls hygienic invectives.

I think consciously of my own AM pre-brushed mouth and tongue, the coffee’s cream layering coats, cup after cup. I think to myself that the poor guy’s arm-over-whole-face act of shame and public humiliation at his oral abjection invokes Kramer’s “Look away; I’m hideous” scene from Seinfeld.

It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.

Wallace: the master of capturing the dark web of human self-conscious thought and reflexive metacognitive unease. See also “The Depressed Person” from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men for further evidence of this. Ken Erdedy’s opening scene of waiting for the woman who said she’d come with the marijuana comes to mind as well.

The NoCoat campaign had three major consequences. The first was that horrible year Hal vaguely recalls when a nation become obsessed with the state of its tongue, when people would no sooner leave home without a tongue-scraper and an emergency backup tongue-scraper than they’d fail to wash and brush and spray. The year when the sink-and-mirror areas of public restrooms were such grim places to be.

I can just imagine the spattery offscouring of lingual gray matter on restroom mirrors (the reflection of which you can even see, at the right angle), all over mirrors all across a nation that’s been hypnotized into developing a phobia that wouldn’t even have occurred to the grand majority of people.

But by this time everybody from Procter & Gamble to Tom’s of Maine had its own brand’s scraper out, some of them with baroque and potentially hazardous electronic extras.

So this passage just does it for me, in both literary and comic terms. Wallace’s writing appears uniquely able to transport me into imagining a world so closely akin to our own, yet with a darker, more extreme consumptive edge. The writing of George Saunders approaches this as well, in his ability to imagine future dystopian consumer nightmare scenarios, rife with irony and social criticism of the logical extensions of our own contemporary moment’s aesthetic fanaticism.

Until next week, scrape on.

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2 thoughts on “The Psychoaesthetic Line”

  1. Thanks for a great post, Dave L!
    “It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”
    Not only ads — political campaigns, genocides, etc. — and not only by monetary purchase (sometimes by violent action.)
    How too too sad that DFW was never able to purchase what would relieve his angst.
    Although I’m not sure said purchase CAN be purchased, perhaps it more has to be performed…
    Have you ever read Will Self’s “Great Apes” (1997)? I bet you would like it.

    1. Thanks, David! Yeah, great additions there. I have not read “Great Apes,” but will definitely look into it. Thanks for the recommendation!

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